Growing up in Venezuela, Daymara Baker would buy bread twice a day right as it came out of the oven at the local panaderia. The bread was called pan canilla, or “skinny leg,” Baker said. Upon moving to the United States in 1996 to attend college, she said she couldn’t find any similar bread. Baker ultimately decided to learn the skill for herself, later opening a bakery that would give individuals their first opportunity at employment.
At her bakery, Rockin’ Baker, employees called “cadets” receive training that gives them more than just kitchen experience. Baker employs individuals with mental disabilities with the goal of giving them a first job experience that will make future employment easier.
“I do my own assessment of what they can do, what they can learn and what could be limiting their learning,” Baker said.
Rockin’ Baker defines “cadets” as underserved individuals working toward self-sufficiency.
The employees start at the bakery by washing dishes, then move up the ranks to bagging bread, working the register, and eventually baking.
“I began cooking out of necessity,” Baker said. She took baking courses when she could and baked bread for friends and coworkers.
Baker said she was on a flight to Venezuela when she realized baking could be a way to help her community here in the U.S.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” she said. “Like a way to give back everything this country has given me.”
Baker left her corporate job at Chiquita Brands, where she was a director of sales for Walmart and Sam’s Club, the same job that brought her to Northwest Arkansas. She opened Rockin’ Baker shortly after, in 2015.
Baker didn’t have experience helping developmentally disabled individuals prior to opening her bakery, but knew they made up a large portion of unemployed people.
Adults with autism are estimated to be 85% unemployed globally, according to Autism Speaks.
Many neurodiverse people never get the chance at employment because they don’t fit the stereotype of a neurotypical person, Baker said. Employers look for things like eye contact when interviewing job candidates.
“There’s a need to educate the employers about their differences,” Baker said.
Margaret McCabe, whose son works at the bakery, said while her son has volunteered before, this was the first opportunity he was given for employment.
“You don’t get to work without some skills and experience,” McCabe said. “Someone, somewhere has to give you that chance.”
McCabe said that while employers might fear they need certain resources to hire neurodiverse people, Baker is giving cadets the confidence to be hired in a more neurotypical workplace.
“I don’t think you can get to a neurotypical workplace very easily,” McCabe said. “Unless you’ve encountered someone like Daymara along the way.”
Baker said she has a Type-A personality, which translates to a fast pace in the bakery, but that she’s learned to be more patient from working with cadets.
Baker will tell you she’s not an expert on neurodiversity and has made her mistakes working with her cadets, but that she is always willing to educate herself for self-improvement. She sometimes speaks with the cadet’s families to understand the best way to work with them.
“I’m not a professional in this area, I’m using common sense,” Baker said.
The cadets know how to do every job in the bakery from washing the dishes to baking the bread and aren’t designated to any specific duty. Baker said because the bakery is team-oriented, it gives them a place to work on their social skills that can be applied to other environments.